[Hpn] The Making of a Student Activist -- possibly off topic, but timely

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Tue, 13 Nov 2001 08:50:58 -0800

The New York Times
November 11, 2001

The Making of a Student Activist


n many ways, Ryan Nuckel is a typical student activist: he doesn't take
drugs, he rarely drinks, and he is fueled by a nagging anger over the fact
that there are haves and have-nots, oppressors and the oppressed. He and his
fellow insurgents would never consider themselves a counterculture: Hippies
turned on and dropped out. He doesn't want to drop out. He just wants

For Mr. Nuckel, activism was a slow evolution, simmering under the surface
until he arrived two years ago at New York University. He grew up in
Babylon, a mostly white middle-class Long Island town, listening to the
music of Radiohead and Nirvana and reading the speeches of Martin Luther
King Jr. and anything by Kurt Vonnegut when the assignment was the
Federalist Papers. His father is a general contractor and his mother works
in a print shop. Both are Republicans.
''I was a typical teenager,'' he says, ''greedy, narcissistic, cynical and
alienated. You grow up in that, and then you become that, and it's awful. I
felt really alone. And then something happens, I don't know what it is, and
you realize that it doesn't have to be that way.''

Now 20 and a junior at N.Y.U., Mr. Nuckel is studying history with an eye
toward writing. He wears the standard student uniform: baggy jeans,
black-and-white Adidases and a flannel shirt. He is tall and skinny with an
angular face and chronically disheveled hair. He thinks about his words
carefully -- he likes ''love,'' ''solidarity,'' ''unity'' and ''justice,''
along with ''beautiful'' as in ''Unity is beautiful'' and ''Solidarity is
beautiful'' -- and then lets them out in a torrent.

Sitting in an East Village cafe over one of many cups of black coffee, he
searches for the roots of his unrest. He remembers his paternal grandmother,
who died five years ago at age 63.

''She died with nothing, no money,'' he says evenly. ''My grandfather died
when my dad was 10 or 11, so she raised five kids by herself, working three
jobs with welfare, doing whatever a woman with minimal qualifications and
skills can do -- a secretary, a phone switch operator, working in

''When I hear about them kicking welfare mothers off the dole, I think of my
grandmother and my father. How can you be that inhumane? It's a small step
from there to sweatshop workers who make 25 cents per $100 shoe, or the
workers from the greengrocers who made $2 and $3 an hour.''

Mr. Nuckel wants to know: ''Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do
people's lives have to be miserable?''

MR. Nuckel is one of the leaders of Students for Social Equality
(technically no one runs it -- a hierarchy would not be sufficiently
democratic). The organization, founded in 1994 in response to the Republican
initiative Contract With America, is one of 308 registered with New York
University's Office of Student Activities. S.S.E. has 300 members and a
broad agenda of progressive social concerns, with a mission statement
calling for ''alternatives to the politics of conformity, selfish
individualism and complacency.''

Members' political interests intersect at various points: the group is
affiliated with the national organization United Students Against
Sweatshops, and a student might also be involved in the Campus Greens, a
youth adjunct of Ralph Nader's party, or the Womyn's Center, a feminist
group. (Overlap is a fairly common occurrence; even the Cartoon Lovers club
co-sponsored an evening with the Democratic Socialists of America. The two
groups watched the 1983 film ''Smurfs and the Magic Flute,'' discussed
communism and ate a Smurf-shaped Carvel ice cream cake.)

With a guiding hand provided by unions in need of recruits to push their
concerns, students across the nation are increasingly engaged in such
organized resistance, especially to issues that can be interpreted on
campus: better wages for workers, or unionizing teaching assistants.
Students are directing their famous idealism and agitation at the gap
between rich and poor and the global tentacles of American corporations,
staging hunger strikes at Purdue or clothing-optional protests at the
University of North Carolina (at an ''I'd Rather Go Naked Than Wear
Sweatshop'' party). The bumper sticker of the day might borrow from the
environmental maxim ''Think globally, act locally.'' And the campaigns have
been effective: Consciousness has been raised and university policies

In 2001, the American bombing of Afghanistan shifted the agenda, though
which political viewpoint will prevail on campuses -- antiwar or
pro-administration -- is not immediately clear.

But what has surely emerged in the last few years is an ardor not seen for
several decades. 

''A lot of factors have contributed to the new activism,'' says Robert
Butler, the director of N.Y.U. student activities. ''One is the push for
students to become involved in community service. There's probably a direct
connection between seeing a problem and seeing constructive ways of getting
involved in the problem. More issues have come up that students can really
get a handle on, like sweatshops and the Graduate Student Union. The
catalyst for that has been a much more savvy group of students in terms of
their understanding of the issues, how to work within the system to try to
affect change and how to work outside of the system to also put pressure on
those who can make change.''

In the incubator that is a college campus, where members of a generation are
geographically collected for the last time, peer pressure and shared current
events motivate activism far more than political leanings, according to Ben
Park, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn
State. He recently completed a study of student activism in South Korea and
is now surveying American campuses. Students who are active in social
organizations are more likely to get involved in protests because of what
Dr. Park calls the ''age-cohort effect,'' an idea that refutes the profile
of insurgent as misfit.

Like most college students, core members of Students for Social Equality --
the 30 or so who show up for weekly meetings -- travel in a pack. They
grapple with the same existential dread. Although a serious lot, they go to
parties, listen to loud music, admire David Lynch and Bob Dylan, and worry
about their relationships. Mostly, though, they drink coffee, smoke
cigarettes and organize. They are sure that they can influence the world
around them, and that they are right.

''I was raised to think that way,'' says Katie Griffiths, a 20-year-old
history major. Ms. Griffiths, the daughter of a doctor and a civil rights
lawyer in Houston, first organized a protest while she was still in high
school. After administrators adopted a dress code, she persuaded 700 of the
school's 750 students to write letters, co-signed by their parents, asking
that it be rescinded. It was.

''That was my first real opportunity to see that I could have an effect on
things,'' she says, clicking a metal bar pierced through her tongue. After
spending her freshman year at Haverford College, she decided that the campus
felt too small and quiet, and she transferred to N.Y.U. ''I can't separate
my politics from my life,'' she says. ''The two are completely

Corey Eastwood, another S.S.E. member, became active in high school after
reading the radical historian Howard Zinn and watching his father, who works
for Con Edison, commute three hours a day to his job. ''I was never able to
spend much time with him because he was always working,'' says Mr. Eastwood,
20, a redhead with a silver ring piercing his nostrils like a tiny cowbell.
''That got me interested in workers' rights.''

Last year, Mr. Eastwood took a semester off to work on Ralph Nader's
presidential campaign. Now he is on the steering committee of the national
Campus Greens, of which there are more than 100 chapters.

Mr. Nuckel credits a former girlfriend, Sabrina Lee, with awakening the
activist within him. She was a member of the Womyn's Center and S.S.E. The
couple would talk and debate.

''She had hope and I didn't, which is a common thing for people wanting to
see change but not knowing how to get it,'' he says. ''I'd always felt that
your beliefs were one thing and your actions another.''

Motivated by the peaceful protesters among the rioters in Seattle at a
demonstration against the World Trade Organization, he realized there was a
place for him in that world. In April 2000, he joined 42 other N.Y.U.
students in Washington to condemn World Bank policies that they think allow
corporations to run amok without accountability.

For him, the scene in Washington was ''amazing.'' He didn't do much except
watch, but what he saw overwhelmed him. ''I've never seen that many
thousands of people except at a rock concert,'' he says. ''It was amazing
how many people were out acting on their beliefs and coming together. It was

He joined S.S.E. last fall because it was the progressive organization on
campus with the highest profile, and was actively involved in labor issues:
monitoring N.Y.U.'s dealings with apparel companies suspected of using
sweatshops, helping with graduate students' unionizing efforts, and
organizing Manhattan deli workers, 95 percent of whom are immigrants.

''That was the best campaign we've done,'' he says. ''They're immigrants,
earning $2 or $3 an hour with no health benefits, working under abominable
conditions. Most are from Puebla, Mexico, which is where one of the Nike
factories we organized around is. It brought home what the point of the
globalization stuff is, that the world is interconnected. The Nike factory
workers have relatives who work at the delis here.''

Most of the protests have been fairly peaceful, although members of Students
for Social Equality were detained and cited for trespassing at the School of
the Americas, a training center at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga. Graduates
include Gen. Manuel Noriega of Panama and others connected to human rights
abuses in their countries.

Last November, Mr. Nuckel and about 20 others from N.Y.U. rented two vans
and drove to the base, plunked down crosses bearing the names of ''murdered
victims of terrorist regimes'' and sang songs. ''It was a really beautiful
protest, really spiritual,'' he says.

But the military police didn't think so, and fingerprinted them. If they
step onto the base again, they will be arrested.

''Yeah,'' he says, ''I'd go to jail or fast or go through some discomfort
for what I believe in, absolutely. I already do.''

Mr. Nuckel spends 12 to 15 hours a week as a paid intern in Brooklyn with
the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group within the Teamsters,
and attends nightly meetings for various causes. A B student, he takes two
classes a day, four days a week. He is prone to headaches, and figures he
sleeps about four hours a night.

When school opened in September, S.S.E. was busy recruiting new members.
Plans for the fall semester included heading back to the School of the
Americas in November and unionizing security guards. But after the events of
Sept. 11, their agenda took a radical new turn: protesting a war, before one
even began. 

It is 10 days after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In the basement of 16
Waverly Place, New York University's undergraduate student center, students
gather for the first meeting of a group tentatively called N.Y.U. Peace
Coalition, one of dozens of similar organizations emerging on campuses
across the country.

Nearly 120 people, most of them undergraduates, show up: African-American
students, Asian students, Arab students -- a United Nations of college kids.

True to their democratic ideals, no one is in charge, although S.S.E. has
called the meeting. Mr. Nuckel sets up the room, arranging chairs and
welcoming people, many of whom have only recently returned to dorm rooms
near the collapsed World Trade Center towers.

''How you doing, man?'' he says repeatedly, shaking newcomers' hands.

While people straggle in, a young man tapes an oversized flip chart to a
portable blackboard. On it is the agenda of the meeting: 5 minutes will be
devoted to an introduction, 15 minutes to group discussion, 10 minutes to
explain the process, 25 minutes to unity, 15 minutes to groups, and 5
minutes to announcements.

Three student facilitators sit before the crowd. Everything will be done by
consensus. The group will discuss every point and then vote. If one person
dissents, the issue will be up for debate again. ''We're all leaders, we are
all empowered to lead this group,'' Mr. Eastwood begins. ''Everyone's voice
will be heard.'' 

To start, the students are asked to share why they are here. Justice, peace,
civil liberties and racism are some of the reasons tossed around.

''We all agree that something must be done, like a change in U.S. foreign
policy, not bombing innocent people,'' says Mr. Eastwood.

There is a lot of raging against the machine.

''They're taking away liberty and defending it at the same time,'' says one

''You can't be antiviolence in America and pro-violence in other
countries!'' says another.

''Bush's view of justice is not the right view,'' says a third. ''Bin Laden
was trained by the C.I.A.!''

A Japanese woman raises her hand. ''I'm afraid of a second Pearl Harbor,''
she says softly. ''Entire cities were destroyed, 300,000 people were killed.
I really appreciate your participation here.''

The room explodes with applause.

Throughout the evening, Mr. Nuckel, wearing a black and yellow T-shirt
bearing the words ''Union Democracy for a Strong Labor Movement,'' nods his
head and claps softly. He surveys the crowd and smiles. ''It's a really
beautiful room to be in right now,'' he says. ''Everybody's brilliant. I
love it. It gives me hope.''

The group then tries to name the coalition and say what it stands for. Are
they pro-peace or antiwar? What are the ramifications of ''pro'' and
''anti''? Should they focus solely on the World Trade Center, or use broader

Finally they decide: They are for peace and against war and racist
scapegoating; in favor of defending civil liberties and for social and
economic justice on a global scale, and for education.

Everyone agrees on all but one point.

''We don't have to worry about justice, we'll let God take care of it,'' one
woman says. 

Pandemonium breaks out. God? Who brought God into the room?

''I associate justice with punishment,'' the woman says. ''We need to
quantify what justice is.''

''It's equity,'' says Ms. Griffiths.

''It's peace,'' another student says.

''Well, you can have peace without justice,'' another points out.

''It's an important question, justice instead of retaliation,'' Mr. Nuckel
says. ''But what does justice mean?''

They decide to focus on that question in future meetings, and students sign
up for working groups.

Before they disperse, a boy in the back of the room stands up. ''Tonight is
the beginning of Yom Kippur, and I just want to say that I can't think of a
better way to atone for my sins and the sins my country is about to commit
than this.'' 

The group bursts into applause. Mr. Nuckel is elated.

At noon on Sept. 29, about 200 people gather at Bryant Park: 1960's
throwbacks, socialists passing out literature, homeless people selling
newspapers. There is a peace march on Washington, and those who couldn't go
will march in Manhattan, from Bryant Park to Union Square.

Mr. Nuckel is visibly annoyed at the low turnout, especially from N.Y.U., as
well as the fragmented agenda. He rifles through his pocket and hands $2 to
a homeless man selling The Street News for $1.

''Everybody's got their leaflets and newspapers and not everyone's talking
to each other and it shouldn't be,'' he says, folding the newspaper into his
backpack. ''The way it's been the last few weeks -- everyone's a community
-- that's how it should be. Union Square after Sept. 11 was this magical
place of unity. I was hoping it was going to stay like that forever.''

He spots a friend, Yoon Soo Byun, a senior N.Y.U. journalism major, and
enfolds him in a bear hug. ''What do you think?'' he asks.

His friend glances around. ''I thought there would be an avenue cleared for

Mr. Nuckel smirks. ''Yeah, well, it ain't St. Patty's Day.''

Then he finds some more friends, and soon the entire group heads down the
Avenue of the Americas waving placards -- ''War is not the answer!'' -- and
chanting ''Bombs will not bring peace!''

Police officers silently walk alongside the group, moving them along.
''We're supposed to be digging downtown and they got us here for these
people?'' says one officer angrily, using expletives. ''They're dividing the
force for this?'' 

Sabrina Lee is exasperated by his words. ''We're not doing this to take away
from any effort!'' she shouts. ''We don't want more families to die.
Retaliation can only make this worse.''

Mr. Nuckel's face is ashen; he looks as if he is about to cry. ''I'm afraid
of things getting twisted around,'' he says. ''We all want this'' tragedy
''never to happen again.'' He does not consider himself unpatriotic or even
antipolice. ''The whole country cried for the police and firemen, and they
were heroes,'' he says. ''The aftermath was filled with such compassion.''

Another march, this one organized by a citywide antiwar group, is planned
for the following week. As it turns out, it is also the day President Bush
sends the first round of missiles into Afghanistan. Thousands of people --
as many as 10,000 according to some estimates -- show up. At least 30
protesters from N.Y.U. gather in a knot.

''I can't believe they did this,'' Ms. Griffiths says. ''The bombing of
major cities is not what they said they were going to do. A lot of people
died today for no reason. But the idea that people are concerned and want
peace -- that made me hopeful. There was an antiwar movement before there
was even a war. That's pretty novel.''

She is asked what the government should do. ''I'm only 20,'' she says.
''It's not my job to figure it all out. I just know what's right and what's

Mr. Nuckel is subdued, his voice hoarse from chanting. ''My dad called me up
and said, 'We had to do something,' and I said, 'That's what the Taliban
said with the World Trade Center.' You fight for a democracy by killing

He shakes his head. This must be how the antiwar protesters of the 60's
felt, like no one listened no matter how loud you shouted. He is dejected by
the pro-administration demonstrations that are being staged on campuses to
counteract the antiwar demonstrations, but he and his friends are energized
by their mission. 

The unity reminds him of one of his favorite authors, Jose Saramago, the
Portuguese Nobel Prize winner. Mr. Nuckel has read his novel ''Blindness''
three times. ''It would be a beautiful book to read now, actually,'' he
says. ''One day, everyone goes blind. They can't explain why, it just
spreads like an epidemic. This small group of people who never knew each
other just gets together. No matter how lost and confused everyone is,
there's always love and solidarity.''

Abby Ellin writes a monthly column about young people for the Money &
Business section of The Times

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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